Are young adult sci-fi and fantasy novels your thing? Then read on as The Loftus Party talks with author C. S. Johnson! She’s produced a catalog of books that includes different genres, but sci-fi and fantasy feature heavily in it. Johnson spoke with TLP about why she chose a writing career, what drew her to science fiction and fantasy, and more in this exclusive interview.
The Loftus Party: You seem to have been writing fiction for a long time. It looks like there are four separate series on your site (with one series—The Starlight Chronicles—having 8 novels and 6 short stories that are “in between each book”) along with other works. Tell us a bit about your writing career.
C. S. Johnson: While I’ve always been drawn to stories and language, I think a few things contributed to my own desire to write and eventually publish. The first was I was always (and still am) very introverted. I took the Myers-Brigg personality test when I went to college, and I turned out to be rated as 100% introverted. While there is a balance to these things, and becoming a wife and parent has eased up some of my social anxiety, I took the test again and found out I am now 85% introverted. At this rate, I will be a full extrovert when I am 125. But just because I was always introverted didn’t mean I didn’t have something to say, and I think that’s where the second part that compels me to write comes from. I want to talk to people, to tell them a story, to help them both understand and allow them to help me understand certain things, and so I really like using stories to bridge the gap. It’s a very effective way of making things both real and personal without actually being personal.
As a child, my parents, I think, were a little horrified at the idea of me making writing a career, and since I liked English and literature as a kid, it seemed like a good fit to go into teaching when I became an adult. I’ve learned the hard way that there’s a difference between a “good fit” and a “God fit,” and I’ve been very blessed to see that God has been able to redeem my time spent teaching—and provide me with a lot of excellent starting points for villains along the way.
In 2012, I submitted my manuscript for Slumbering to Munce Magazine and Women of Faith’s writing contest. The book, very surprisingly, won second place and was published as a result with Westbow Press. Since then, I’ve made it my mission (as slow-going and back-tracking as it is) to be a professional writer. There has been a lot of trial and error along the way, I can assure you.
The books have just kept coming, and I’ve been good (or good enough) about hearing their call.
TLP: Sci-fi and fantasy seem to be favorite genres or yours? Is that right? If so, why favor science fiction and fantasy over reality-based fiction?
CJ: They are my favorite genres to write in—incidentally, my favorite genres to read are more like memoir and historical works, both fiction and non-fiction alike, depending on the subject. I like to play with possibilities, and science fiction and fantasy allow me to do that much more than contemporary fiction does. I also like working with things that can remain possibilities over time. In The Heights of Perdition, the first book of my Divine Space Pirates trilogy, for example, the URS (United Revolutionary States) is the combination of Canada and the US after a combination of fiscal irresponsibility, war, and environmental disaster. While I doubt that will happen in my lifetime, I sometimes look at politics today and laugh, wondering if I managed to get it right—and I can laugh, too, because my story has a mostly-happy ending if I did. But even a hundred years or so down the road, unless it’s actually happened, it is still possible it can happen, and I like that sort of longevity with my work. Truth is truth, but truth can only really make an impact if it’s told in a relevant way.
TLP: What additional advantages are there to working in the science fiction and fantasy genres? Are there any disadvantages?
CJ: The best thing about science fiction and fantasy is that the worldbuilding—time, space, conflicts, etc.—can literally be anything you want, and the only caveat I’ve found that truly sticks, if you want a good story, is that it has to make sense.
The next best thing about that is that if it’s going to make sense, you have to understand the difference between archetype and stereotype, and you have to understand cause and effect. I say this because I’m good at putting my own words into practice here. People are very surprised when they talk with me and find I can talk intelligibly about all sorts of different topics, especially in current events, and I can entertain ideas and play them out logically inside my mind, even if I might disagree with them. The imagination is perhaps less limited than reality, but reality still demands its due; there is no building up a fantastical world without having a solid understanding of reality.
The disadvantages to this aren’t much different from the ones you come across in other genres. I think in science fiction and fantasy alike, there is a strong desire to try to appease everyone with the stories, so there’s so much that gets added in which can dilute the story’s impact (re: The Last Jedi). I think science fiction and fantasy suffer the most from this, with a few exceptions, largely because there’s no concrete way to see the mistakes in real time.
CJ: The book is set in 1880 London, 275 years after the Gunpowder Plot. In One Flew Through the Dragon Heart, instead of failing completely, the Gunpowder Plot managed to blow open a magic portal in the middle of Parliament, thanks to sacred Chinese gunpowder used in the plot (no one died, though, so the perpetrators were still punished). Unbeknownst to the general public, a dragon spirit lives inside the portal and it is radiating the magic that perpetually pours out into the city, giving some people the power, through exposure and genetics, to wield different types of magic.
My main character, Brixton Flew, has white magic, the magic of creation, and he uses it to design and build new machines. Because he is in debt, he is reluctantly working for Rembrandt Academy, the school of magical wielder instruction (kind of a boring adult version of Hogwarts, according to one of my ARC readers), where he learned how to channel and use his magic. He especially hates working there because it is the place where he fell in love with Adelaide Favan, the woman who broke his heart when they were younger.
But Adelaide has a few scars on her own heart, too. In addition to being a “mixed-breed” in her family, with her Chinese and British bloodlines, her black magic, the magic of destruction, seems to have a life of its own. It tries to steal the life energy of others, and she can’t actually control her power. Her only hope of doing so is in the Dragon Eyes, two amethysts that tie back to the fall of the Qin Empire, Beowulf, and a curse on the women in her family.
When Adelaide and her family finally locate the Dragon Eyes, it brings her right back into Brixton’s life.
I won’t give away too much, but I can say the story has its roots in my own battle with my twin dragons, which is how I refer to my depression and anxiety (I get a lot of flak for this among the pro-tame-dragon community), and my own insecurity when it comes to love. At my worst moments, I wonder who will love me, when all I seem to do is cause them to suffer, and I can do nothing for them. My husband has loved me through three rounds of severe depression, two post-partum, and I am always so amazed, grateful, and humbled at his love for me. As much as Adelaide and her magic cause Brixton to suffer, he loves her enough to willingly suffer for her—even if it costs him his life, and even if it means dealing with her family (both of which can be equally terrifying).
TLP: Which is your preferred method: self-publishing or traditional publishing? Why?
CJ: I’ve done both enough I can say without a doubt there are upsides and downsides to both, and the biggest of both of those is the same. Self-publishing means I have complete control over everything. It’s great to be in control—you can plan your sales, you can try new things, you can publish as often and as much as you want. But there are limits to everything, and one person can’t do it all. With traditional publishing, it was much easier to get my books into places and advertised in places that, as an indie author, I would either have much more difficulty doing or I would flat-out never achieve.
TLP: Why write fiction? What drew you to that and how does fiction affect culture?
CJ: I write fiction because I believe I am called to; I believe in God and I believe we, as humans, carry the Imago-dei, the image of God, and since he is a creator, I am a creator, and I find a lot of delight in being so. In terms of fiction, I think there are some things you just know you are made for. Writing has always been a friend I can fall in love with a thousand times over. Ideas come into my imagination like new friends, and gradually or all at once, I’m drawn so deeply into a world between words that it’s impossible to break free without exploring it in its entirety. Of course, there are days of love-hate relationship dynamics, the days where writing seems to have gone on vacation, the times when it seems like it’s left me for good; but those days, thankfully, never last for long and only heighten the returning enjoyment. Writing for me is suited to be more of a passion, not a true love.
In terms of culture, culture and creation have a dialectic relationship. I see them as opposing strands of DNA, where they twist and turn along in a creative dance, allowing for replication, translation, and growth.
But growth is really only possible if we learn, and one of the best things someone once told me was that people learn from each other. I learned how to be more of myself by not only watching people I thought were good examples, but also bad ones, and trying to copy the good and avoid the bad. I have not always succeeded, but having these guidelines allowed me to make a template in which I could sort of build and grow into who I was (am) meant to be.
My characters offer that sort of opportunity for my readers. Find ones you like, and emulate them, and see the bad ones, and avoid them. We do that with people in our own lives, and each different person, whether real or imaginary, allows us the chance to find new ways be our best and truest selves. I think creators like me have a responsibility to create people that are real, both hero and villain alike, to show different sides of humanity (and inhumanity) and the problems we run into in a fallen world. Uncle Tom’s Cabin arguably influenced America into taking a definite stand on the issue of slavery, and references to To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984 have made recent rounds in political discussions. But it’s not just in the political aspect that we need good characters. There is no being a hero without having a good conflict, and there is no becoming a mentor without failure.
Culture always starts at an individual level, just as a fire begins with a spark. [Robert] McKee says that the goal of a story is to lose yourself to find yourself, and I think if we have enough ideas where people can agree on—and honestly, people can agree on plenty, if we’re not looking for the specific divisions between us—we can achieve tomorrow what people think is impossible today. There’s not only pleasure to be had in possibilities, but power, too. And just like fire, power can be good and bad, and it’s up to us to use it responsibly.
Image at Top: Excerpt of cover for One Flew Through the Dragon Heart.